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Wînipêk: Visions of Canada from an Indigenous Centre

“You see the most evidence of reconciliation because the population in Manitoba… We were the first province. We’re the first treaty. We’re the first place where the Indian Act Policy happened, where residential schools started.” 

On May 30th, at McNally Robinson in Grant Park, more than 100 people filled the Winnipeg bookstore. Every seat set up for the event was taken, and many chose to stand in the crowd before the podium Sinclair spoke from while others went upstairs to see the entire group. Niigaan Sinclair, a well-known writer and reporter based out of Winnipeg, was celebrating the publication of his book Wînipêk.

Released May 28th, Niigaan Sinclair has published a collection of his columns in an anthology of just over 350 pages. Wînipêk: Visions of Canada from an Indigenous Centre tells Winnipeg’s history, focusing on the region’s Indigenous perspective. His book is a collection of issues pertaining to Indigenous people and systemic racism, including pieces about the lasting issues stemming from Canadian residential schools.  

Sinclair has taken a selected collection of his writings and aligned them in his book distributed into four sections, each with a season dedicated: The Land: Niibin, Summer, This Place: Dagwaagin, Fall, Streets and Rivers: Biboon, Winter, and Gifts: Ziigwan, Spring. As he sorted out which articles were going into the book, he began to see patterns among the selected pieces. He noticed patterns around how Winnipeg had dealt with the history of Indigenous people in this area before the city was established. Each season, Sinclair explained, has a purpose, and the purpose of each season helped to sort the articles sectionally.

“For instance, summertime is a time of reflection but also a time of work. Wintertime is a time of learning. And so I started breaking it up according to that.”

Publishing this book is something Sinclair had on his mind for some time. Once he was approached by Penguin Publishing, he knew what he wanted to do. A book Niigaan published in 2011 called Manitowapow had him thinking about more than the province, about the history of the city itself. Primarily, it got him thinking of how the city of Winnipeg is here because it is fed by the watershed from Lake Winnipeg. This got him thinking about stories he could tell about Winnipeg.

According to his book, Wînipêk is a Cree and Anishinaabe, which is a “word derived from wind, meaning ‘dirty,’ and nibling, meaning ‘waters.'” The original pronunciation was WEEN-AH-BUCK or WAH-NAH-BICK or Wînipêk. The dirty waters spoken of are the Red River and the Assiniboine, extensions of Lake Winnipeg.

Cree and Anishinaabe people used the word long before European arrival. The word was first documented as “Ouinipigon” in 1734 by French explorers. By 1817, when the first treaty between Indigenous and European people took place, the area “on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg” was called Winnipeg. Once settlers established the city around Upper Fort Garry in 1873, they chose the name Winnipeg, a reference to the treaty.  

“I did an anthology about Manitoba a number of years ago, back in 2011, called Manitowapow …it was the first Indigenous anthology of Manitoba, and I started to think about how I wanted to do something about Winnipeg. Then I realized Winnipeg doesn’t represent the city; it represents the watershed and the entirety of the lake. So that’s what Winnipeg represents. Our rivers come from the watershed.”

Truth and Reconciliation

Across Canada, we have seen increasing focus being placed on reconciliation with Indigenous communities coast to coast to coast. This is not a situation unique to Winnipeg. However, Winnipeg is a unique perspective for the efforts of Truth and Reconciliation, as Winnipeg is home to the largest Indigenous population in the country. Sinclair describes Winnipeg as a place in motion toward reconciliation.

“I don’t think it’s unique. I think it’s happening everywhere. But I think it’s happening the most in Winnipeg. You see the most evidence of reconciliation because the population in Manitoba… We were the first province. We’re the first treaty, we’re the first place where the Indian Act Policy happened, where residential schools started.”

Ultimately, Winnipeg is in large part where European and Indigenous relations saw some of the worst moments, some of the most active violence against Indigenous people. Winnipeg has had “the longest of dealing with the issue of violence impacting Indigenous lives and Indigenous relationships.”

While the book is a collection of ideas and stories, it is presented as a cogent singular entity. Each article selected for the book was meticulously chosen, but some articles are more important to Sinclair personally.

“The piece about my Grandfather is probably the most important to me personally. But I find that the piece that really appeals to a lot of people is the piece that is at the very start. The piece talks about the history, particularly the epidemic that created the city of Winnipeg in 1783. The fact that downtown Winnipeg is over the top of a huge burial ground.”

This burial ground is not something many of us are aware of. Few classrooms explain the reality of what our urban centre was built atop, and for many, this is something they have a difficult time accepting. This is not something our city chooses to actively address.

“People don’t talk about the history that happened downtown. Yesterday [June 3rd], the University of Manitoba made a massive apology for the mistreatment of Indigenous remains. Remains from that site, from the 1783 smallpox epidemic. So finally, apologizing for the mistreatment, the city of Winnipeg can do well to learn from that action.”

Sinclair suggests that a monument or at least the beginning of the conversation about what happened there would be a major step forward for the city. These ideas are off the top of his head, but he hopes the city one day addresses the reality of where our tallest buildings stand on some of the most expensive real estate in the province.

“A monument or at least a conversation. What does it mean that we have all of the downtown core of Winnipeg overtop an Indigenous city? It makes us all richer to know that because we realize Winnipeg did not begin with the arrival of British tradespeople. It was here for hundreds of years, even before that. There were histories before that.”

Sinclair hopes that by reading Wînipêk, people will come to understand that Winnipeg is, in many ways, the starting point of Reconciliation in Canada. This, he says, is the most important issue in Canada today. To move forward collectively, we must listen to the history and lived experiences of Indigenous people. From this, we can learn together how to move toward reconciliation.

Sinclair says this message is gradually being reflected across the country. Winnipeg is the leading example today, but every city across the country will be forced to face their history. Winnipeg, Sinclair says, is an indication of what every other city will experience when it comes to confronting their past and stepping toward reconciliation with honest intentions.

Sinclair has been a regular contributor to CTV, CBC, APTN, and several other papers. He has passionately written about Indigenous issues in his time as a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, sometimes to the chagrin of readers who are uncomfortable being confronted with such issues.  

Wînipêk is available both online and in stores.  

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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